InfoShok: I Sing the School Electric

The Dream of Poor Bazin

Jerry Stratton

What if the Three Musketeers were journalists in Washington, DC? What if journalists were swashbuckling, swaggering, hard-drinking warriors of truth? Find out in Jerry Stratton’s The Dream of Poor Bazin.

  1. The Information Promise
  2. InfoShok
  3. Pushing the Envelope

The information highway will produce no greater change than what is in store for those whose existence is the distribution and creation of volatile information. And there is no institution more devoted to distributing and creating information than compulsory and voluntary schooling: elementary schools, high schools, colleges and universities. Much has been written about remote schooling, and a hell of a lot more remains to be said before the dust clears. It is becoming more and more clear, however, that the traditional morning to afternoon, bus-in, bus-out, production line school system is falling apart at the seams. Home schooling is on the rise, there is a cry for ‘privatization’ of public schools, and everyone has their own pet theory about the best way to ‘reform’ our educational system. The debate was raging when I was in high school, and it shows no sign of subsiding now. But it also shows no sign of producing any results, nor any action at all among the speakers. Public schooling remains the hide-bound prison system it has ever been.

By its nature, public schooling teaches us how to live in yesterday’s world. School curriculum is created by yesterday’s people: parents, and, worse, legislators. These are people who know about yesterday but know little to nothing about today.

When yesterday’s world was no different from today’s world, and little different from tomorrow’s, that wasn’t a problem. Today, yesterday’s world might as well be the Jurassic. Children learn more today from Sega and Castle Wolfenstein 3D than they do from Civics and Phonics. Sega, Nintendo, and Atari, like most of the game machines, are state of the art. They’re what “real” computers will look like when the kids playing them graduate, and these kids will feel right at home--unlike their diligent friends who spent less time on games and more time reading textbooks that haven’t been updated since the fifties.

Home schoolers have the most to gain from the infobahn, and are likely to be the first to start using it at anywhere near its full potential. The combination of computers and computer networks will allow curriculum and the ‘virtual classroom’ to be tailored down to the individual level.

Colleges and universities, on the contrary, stand to lose if they don’t start planning ahead. The so-called ‘diploma mills’, college by mail, could well graduate into prestigious colleges by e-mail.

In 1992, “record numbers of freshmen” chose their college “on the basis of low tuition” (?), and as tuition rises, the possibility of virtual universities rises as well. The cost is not the only thing that will spur on-line education forward. People have less and less time, and want to do more and more. Time spent traveling to school, time spent in class listening to a lecture that could just as well have been taped, or even worse, merely repeats what was in the readings, is time wasted. Time that could have been spent on studying or on recreation. On the faculty side, this is time that could have been spent in research, or in writing, or in searching out grant money--a process which itself has become more time-consuming as traditional funds dry up.

How are traditional universities responding to the challenge of the virtual university? The University of San Diego seems to be sticking its head in the sand. Our new University President recently gave a speach to new administrators. She brought up the virtual university and asked, “What do we have to offer that they can’t?”.

Connectivity is not Community, she said. Virtual universities cannot provide the interpersonal skills and spiritual development that a brick university can.

That statement shows an administrator in denial. It isn’t ignorance. She also talked about how the brick university is still tied to the harvest schedule. How we’re still training our students factory style. But she put that behind her, saying only that we need to publicize what we can already offer:

Connectivity is not community.

Meanwhile, husbands are writing Ann Landers because their wives of twenty years are leaving for richer community on-line. Connectivy is community. You will never find one without the other. When the first two computers hooked up on Arpanet in the sixties, a community immediately formed, beyond the Department of Defense’s mandate. Virtual communities offer community by choice rather than by chance. While brick universities may have features to offer that virtual universities do not, this is not one of them.

Virtual universities also offer the possibility of ‘mix-and-match’ educations, where students take one course here, another there, and build up a portfolio of class credits according to their personal needs and career goals. Of course, such a scheme would require some over-arching Kipling-style Aerial Board of Credits to provide accreditation to virtual schools, judging the level of each class in relation to each other class so that potential employers can judge the relative worth of similar resumés.

Or, it will force employers to hire based on what potential employees know, rather than what they were taught.

The first major university to offer a full course load across the infobahn stands to become the Oxford or Harvard of the information highway. As Internet access spreads beyond people who are already attending a university, the market for classes by e-mail grows. What would such a class look like?

The major portion of the class will almost certainly be something vaguely like electronic mail, although it will also almost certainly resemble today’s electronic mail in the same way that a modern Cessna resembles a barnstorming biplane.

Electronic mail itself is vaguely like normal mail. Reading materials and book lists will be electronically mailed to each student, as will exercises and tests. Some tests can even be timed, so that while the student chooses when to start--before going to work or just before going to sleep--once started, a specific amount of time is allotted to each page or question. These won’t be the ugly 80-character per line single font monstrosities that pass for electronic mail today. They’ll be on-line, easy to read (if you have the right client software), and easy to use--assuming you know the answers.

They could well be just as anxiety provoking as tests “in the real world”. Judging from the number of flame wars out there, the Internet can already provide this service, if one considers anxiety a marketable commodity.

Tests in ‘real time’ can be provided through existing technology via the World Wide Web and ‘html’ documents.

  • Washington delivered his farewell address in:


Like the modern classroom, each course will limit the number of people attending at any given time. This limit might be small, for example, in a seminar, where the students and teacher are expected to interact regularly. It might be as large as thousands for a lecture series, similar to those popular classes held in the auditoriums of modern universities. There might even be ‘levels’ of access among the students in a particular class, with higher tuition rates getting more interaction with the professor and the teaching assistants, and perhaps even more credits.

Some classes will meet regularly on the infobahn, just like the Aerosmith fans did during the Aerosmith World Tour of Cyberspace. Other classes will revolve around reading materials and writing, or doing calculations: readin’, ritin’, and ‘rithmetic.

In general, the kinds of interaction that occur in a class will be ‘leisure’ and ‘conference’. All classes will undoubtedly include a ‘mailing list’ of some sort, where students and teachers can interact at their leisure. Each student reads the messages on the mailing list at their leisure, and responds as they feel it necessary, again, at their leisure. A mailing list-based class might end up being similar to a writing seminar, in which individuals have time to make up their questions and responses. As, for example, the group COMICW-L does, as we, the members, try to hone our comic book writing skills.

There is no teacher involved with COMICW-L. There is nothing on the net that requires students to search out a teacher in order to learn.

Classes in which there are a small number of people and discussion is expected in ‘real time’ can have regular ‘conference sessions.’ These will be times when each student is on the infobahn, in the same net place, at the same net time. When one student types something (!) the rest of the students (and the teacher) see it. They can respond immediately--and will presumably be expected to. This will work pretty much just like the Valhalla MOO and the Aerosmith Tour. Except that it will hopefully not crash as often.

‘Office hours’ can be dealt with via electronic mail, and many professors in ‘real’ colleges do this already. If deemed important, a type of ‘conference’, in which the professor remains ‘on-line’ at a specific location and time on the infobahn, can allow for real-time discussion between students and the teacher.

Teachers can set up electronic displays that the students can visit. The displays might even be attached to something ‘real’, so that when the students type “add potassium to water” onto their keyboards, they see a robot hand add the spoonful of potassium to the beaker of water. They may not even have to type. Your child’s video game is already teaching your child how to use electric gloves to control computers.

The question of testing becomes important. When the students are sitting in their home--possibly on the other side of the world--how can you trust their honesty? But I think that the virtual school will become so necessary that the question of integrity will be resolved even if it means simply trusting the student not to cheat. That’s really the way things are done today as well, at least in college. It certainly would never have been hard to cheat in any of the classes I took. (Not that I ever did, of course. What’s the point?)

The ‘mix and match’ education may throw the standard four-year liberal arts education out the window. Of course, people have been crying the death of liberal arts for well over a century now, and colleges continue to be flooded with students. Neither trade schools nor night schooling nor school by mail has dented college enrollment.

But trade schools and night schooling are the same as college: you spend all your free time going to school. Degrees by mail are closer to an Internet education, but the big difference is that the infobahn offers full interactivity, combining mail with the classroom setting. The infobahn allows the delivery of tests and curriculum via electronic mail, and still allows instructors and students to interact during office hours. Students can receive tutoring from others who have already passed through the course, no matter how far apart they may be physically. Students can get together with other students in the same class, though they may be separated by a dozen time zones, in an electronic coffeehouse or classroom on the infobahn.

How effective is on-line learning compared to the traditional lecture? The studies are beginning to trickle in, and on-line learning is winning. A professor at Cal State Northridge banned half of his students from the lecture hall. They took the course via the web, discussion groups, and personal e-mail with the professor. And they performed 20% better than their lecture hall counterparts. The question now being asked is, did they perform better because of the on-line format of the class, or because they spent more time collaborating with their classmates? That is, did they learn more because of their teacher or because they could more easily ignore their teacher and learn from their fellow students? (Chronicle of Higher Education, 2/21/97)

People are already holding classes over electronic mail, and Doctor Bart Thurber here at USD is attempting to get support for a ‘virtual’ class on Valhalla, the University’s virtual city. I’ll hopefully be teaching at least one class this spring on Valhalla as well: Beginners’ Internet. If I can get the beginners to make their way to an electronic classroom, that is. But first, I need to write the software that will allow us to maintain a civil discussion in Valhalla.

No, I’m not going to create a virtual robot that bops people on the head when they flame a fellow netizen. Virtual worlds are still in their infancy and while the future capabilities seem limitless, they’re lacking quite a bit in the here and now. Most of the really useful stuff requires that someone build it from the ground up. In order to have classes on Valhalla, I need to build a classroom environment. I’m going to go a step further and build a conferencing environment. The virtual world that we’re using is organized around rooms and individuals, not halls and groups. So for Valhalla, we need a real-time discussion counterpart to the electronic mail and Usenet ‘leisure-time’ discussion groups.

Anyone who is a member of the conference--or class--will be able to ‘talk to the group’. Each member of the group will then hear what was said, no matter where they happen to be inside the virtual world. Whether they’re sitting in front of the virtual podium or trekking through a virtual jungle, they’ll be able to not only hear the discussion, but contribute as well. Some conferences will be private--by invitation only. Others will be public, with no restrictions on who can join. Some will be moderated, meaning that there’s an ‘audience’ and a ‘speaker’, or group of speakers. The speakers can hear comments from the audience, and the audience can hear what the speakers have to say; but the audience won’t be inundated with each others comments. This is important if there are a hundred people in the conference all making comments. The virtual world is still all text, and a hundred lines scrolling up your computer screen will fry your brain.

Moderators will be able to silence individual audience members, kick them out of the group, and even blacklist them from returning. Conference owners will thus be able to run as fascist or anarchist a conference as they need. Anyone wanting to replicate the standard classroom experience in Valhalla will want a quite rigid conference. They’ll want it moderated, with the teacher and any teaching assistants as the moderators. And they’ll want it private, allowing only the real-world class members to join the virtual class.

Public conferences will likely be more anarchist, resembling the ‘CB’ or ‘chat’ feature on places like Compuserve, where everything each member says gets sent to each other member’s computer screen. Anyone will be allowed to join at the drop of a hat, and moderators will likely refrain from blacklisting anyone except the most heinous social offenders.

Valhalla exists now. The ‘classroom’ features exist tomorrow, literally, rather than the vast nebulous tomorrow of everything else on the net. What does Valhalla the Classroom offer for educators and students? Like the rest of the net, it offers a way to bring scattered people together. The Valhalla classroom is as near as the nearest computer and telephone. Students in, say, the Foreign Exchange program can still take a class or two at ‘home’, should that class be offered solely via Valhalla.

There are dangers as well, of course. Students might be tempted to ‘record’ the class without ever actually attending it, by programming their on-line persona to ‘take notes’ on what is said. More enterprising students might even attempt to program their virtual self to respond semi-intelligently to questions posed by a suspicious teacher. Likewise, those who do show up but don’t take part in the discussion will be even less obvious than wallflowers in a real-world classroom, and an educator will want to keep track of who is contributing. Of course, there’s an easily read on-line record of exactly what each person has contributed, and both class members and teachers can review that record.

There’s another reason why the education system will change. As I pointed out, the way we educate our children today is meant to prepare them for life in an industrial superpower. But we are less and less of an industrial power every day. Societies of the future are information societies. The society that prepares their children for life in an industrial power and then thrusts them into an information world is relegating them to ‘second class’ jobs and unemployment. The society, on the other hand, that first prepares their children for life in the information age will have a head start towards becoming the superpower of the future, overtaking the hidebound industrial powers of yesterday.

One thing that is becoming clear is that workers in an information society change jobs often. In many cases, they even change fields, as technological advancement makes their original field obsolete. This effect will only accelerate in the future. We need a more ephemeral classroom to deal with a more constantly changing future. One of the most important jobs of every worker may well be preparing themselves for their next job, and hoping that they guessed correctly what that next job will be. This is where on-line schooling will excel.

Or we might just lower the retirement age to thirty.

  1. The World Almanac and Book of Facts 1994 .
  2. In the future you won’t type it, you’ll say it. ‘The future’ isn’t that far away if you own a Macintosh.
  1. The Information Promise
  2. InfoShok
  3. Pushing the Envelope